Allergens are everywhere and are ready to cause a variety of mild to severe diseases such as allergic rhinitis, atopic dermatitis, asthma…etc.
What is an allergy and what are the properties of allergies?
An allergy is a hypersensitivity disorder of the immune system. Allergic reactions occur when a person's immune system mistakenly reacts to and attacks normally harmless and often common substances encountered in the environment. These substances that cause allergies are called “allergens”. Allergic reactions are quite different from normal immune reactions because of the over-activation of populations of white blood cells called mast cells and basophils by a certain type of antibody called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). Allergies are known to be due to a malfunctioning (hypersensitive) immune system. Scientists believe allergies occur because people in the modern developed world live in cleaner environments and are exposed to fewer microorganisms because of changes in hygiene, diet and the use of antibiotics. As a consequence, people in the modern developed world also have far more allergies than people living in less sanitary conditions in the undeveloped world and those that lived in the past. Allergies are thought to first develop when we are young and our maturing immune systems become imbalanced due to under-stimulation by healthy normal flora, germs and other pathogens. Without the proper stimulation of the immune system by these microbes, the immune system does not develop or “learn” properly and as a result, overreacts to these normally harmless allergens thereby causing allergies.
Over 30% of the world's population suffer from allergies!
Allergies are among the most common afflictions in the world today with some form of allergies currently affecting 30-40% of the world population with the incidence projected to increase to over 50% in the next two decades! Allergic conditions are a major public health problem that is largely ignored by the medical community and the general public. One key reason for this apparent lack of concern is that allergies are often are not perceived as serious chronic diseases compared to higher profile diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular disease and as a result are often underdiagnosed and consequently remain untreated. Possibly the most alarming fact regarding allergies is that the incidence of allergies worldwide is increasing rapidly!
What are the common allergic diseases and the allergens that cause them?
Allergies are caused by normal substances (allergens) that we commonly encounter in our everyday environment. Allergens are found everywhere around us including the air we breathe, the liquids and solids we consume, things that come in contact with our skin and even from insect bites and stings. Common allergens include: plant pollen, animal dander, common foods like peanuts, mold and other fungi spores, insect saliva (mosquitos), insect venom (bees), medications, chemicals and even latex rubber gloves. These allergens cause a variety of mild to severe diseases. The most commonly diseases caused by allergens are:
- Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever is an inflammation of the nose and sinuses and is often caused by inhaled allergens such as pollen, fungi spores and animal dander.
- Asthma is a serious inflammatory disease of the lungs and can be caused by almost any allergen or irritant that can be inhaled.
- Atopic dermatitis is due to direct skin contact with allergens and other irritants.
- Food allergies are becoming increasingly common and can be caused by many commonly consumed foods such as peanuts, soy and eggs.
Clinical symptoms of allergies.
Allergic reactions result in inflammatory symptoms which can range from just simply annoying, to serious, to dangerous and even deadly. Allergic reactions can trigger irritation of the eyes, nasal passages/sinuses, lungs, throat, ears, the skin and also the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Typical mild symptoms include itching of the nose, eyes and skin along with watery eyes and runny nose with sneezing. Sometimes the skin can become red, with swelling, dryness and even cracking. Generally, the symptoms of allergies can be quite unpleasant, but not life threatening. However, conditions such as asthma can be quite serious and may have a significant impact on one’s quality of life and one’s lifespan. In extreme cases, a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis can occur which can result in dangerously low blood pressure, vomiting and inability to breath. If untreated, anaphylaxis can result in rapid death!
How can allergies be prevented or cured?
Perhaps the best way to prevent allergies is to avoid the allergens! If you know you have allergic rhinitis from seasonal pollen, simply try to avoid spending time outdoors during that time of the year. Sometimes you cannot avoid the allergens, making your next best option to use protection such as a face mask or face cloth to filter out much of the pollen. There are medical treatments such as desensitization and drugs that can help cure or relieve the symptoms of allergies. However, like all other drugs, anti-allergy drugs can have unpleasant side effects. If exposure to allergens is unavoidable, the best solution has been shown to balance your immune system and your microflora, thereby reducing allergies at the root cause versus just reliving the symptoms as drugs do.